William Byrd, whose music is still much beloved among 21st-century choirs, was a prominent composer during the latter part of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I and nearly all of the reign of James I (and VI). This year is the 400th anniversary of his death in 1623.
A turbulent religious time
William Byrd was born, probably in London, around 1540. Like his two older brothers John and Simon, he was probably a choirboy at St Paul’s. The first evidence for his musical activity is the appointment in 1563 of ‘a certain William Byrd, zealous in the art of music’ to a position in Lincoln, where he was organist and master of the choristers at the cathedral. (A bit too zealous, it seems – he was reprimanded for playing music that was too showy in the opinion of the cathedral authorities.)
Following Henry VIII’s split with Rome in the 1530s, his son Edward VI (1547–1553) was the first English monarch raised as a Protestant. He oversaw the publication in 1549 of the Book of Common Prayer, largely the work of Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury. It provided forms of worship for daily and Sunday worship, for the first time in English. Edward died aged only 15, and his Catholic sister Mary I (1553–1558) repealed Edward’s reforms and reinstated Catholic services in Latin. When Elizabeth I came to the throne in 1558 she reverted to Protestant worship in English.
New music for the new services
Cranmer’s prayer book created a need for musical settings of the new services. While in Lincolnshire, William Byrd composed not only religious music for the cathedral services but also non-religious songs for voice and viol consort.
By 1572 Byrd had moved to London. He was sworn in that year as a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal, the on-call choir available to the monarch wherever he or she happened to be. Byrd drew his Chapel Royal salary until his dying day. This provided useful camouflage for the fact that he was, to the end of his life, that forbidden thing, a faithful Catholic – a recusant.
He was protected by his musical genius, the fact that his brothers were by then well-established merchants in London, and his well-placed connections among prominent Catholics, including several prominent East Anglian families.
Byrd seems to have been an entrepreneur: he established the printing of music in England. He and Thomas Tallis, a senior member of the Chapel Royal and also a recusant, were granted by Queen Elizabeth the exclusive right to print, according to Edmund Fellows’s The Byrd Edition, “songe or songes in partes, either in English, Latine, Frenche, Italian, or other tongues that may serve for musicke either in Churche or chamber, or otherwise to be either plaid [played] or soonge.” Their monopoly encompassed the printing of blank music manuscript paper, which would have been needed by any competitor composer and was not allowed to be imported.
Music for recusant strongholds in East Anglia
Around 1594 Byrd and his family moved to Stondon Massey, not far from his friend and patron Sir John Petre’s homes at Thorndon Hall and Ingatestone Hall in Essex. The court of Elizabeth I could be a stressful place of fierce and sometimes violent rivalries. Byrd must have valued his country bolthole.
From then on it seems he sang only occasionally with the Chapel Royal, though he probably sang for the funeral of Queen Elizabeth and the coronation of James I in 1603. It’s highly likely, however, that Byrd’s music was used for worship among recusant communities such as those surrounding the Petre family at Ingatestone and the Pastons of Norfolk.
Records at Ingatestone show increased production at the hall’s brewery around the great Catholic festivals, suggesting that the Petre family hosted large gatherings. Byrd’s Ave verum corpus (‘Hail to the true Body’) was clearly written for Corpus Christi, the feast that in pre-Reformation times celebrated the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and which had been officially abolished in England in 1548.
Bearing witness to the febrile religious atmosphere of the time, there were priest’s holes at both Ingatestone and Oxburgh Hall, the home of the Paston’s Bedingfield relatives. The one at Oxburgh is the work of Nicholas Owen, an ingenious lay Jesuit who built dozens of such hiding places to protect the priests serving the recusant communities who were singing Byrd’s music.
“My Mind to me a Kingdom is”
Recusancy could attract a death sentence, and many Catholics at this period chose to leave England and live in safety on the continent. Byrd never did. The singer and early music scholar Dr Kerry McCarthy suggested in a recent webinar marking celebrations of the Byrd anniversary at Ingatestone that he chose instead to seek an ‘exile of conscience’.
She illustrated this form of internal spiritual journey with one of Byrd’s songs, a setting of a poem by Edward Dyer, ‘My Mind to me a Kingdom is’, recorded here by Emma Kirkby. The poet explains in one verse that he finds all he needs in his inner life:
I press to bear no haughty sway,
I wish no more than may suffice
I do no more than well I may,
Look, what I want my mind supplies.
Lo! thus I triumph like a king
My mind content with anything.
Byrd is buried, as he requested in his will, in the churchyard at Stondon Massey – the church he was frequently fined for refusing to attend.
Keswick Hall Choir will be marking the 400th anniversary of Byrd’s death on 18 November in a concert featuring music by Byrd and Tallis, including Byrd’s Ave verum corpus and his Five-Part Mass, in St John’s, Norwich’s Catholic Cathedral. One imagines that Byrd might have been delighted.